Free Content Is a Service, and We Should Tip Like It

How many corporations do you think have made a profit by using the term “on fleek”? How much profit? Whatever the number, it’s certainly more than Kayla Newman — aka Peaches Monroee, the teenager who coined the term in a Vine clip in 2014 — ever made.

From IHOP and Denny’s to JetBlue and Taco Bell, countless companies — acting on studies that insist young consumers want to have a “dialogue” with brands — have overhauled their marketing strategies over the past decade with a new approach built almost entirely on cribbing memes and slang from online youth culture. Like “on fleek,” most of these pop-cultural touchstones were made for free and gained popularity organically on user-generated sites, where users must relinquish ownership by default; it costs precisely nothing to appropriate them for marketing purposes. Sometimes the creators of these memes gain fame and fortune, but most often, for their contributions to both culture and commerce, they get nothing.

“Put plainly, there is no recognized ownership,” wrote Doreen St. Félix in 2015. (Newman, now 19, did recently launch a beauty company named after the phrase she coined, but because the phrase was never trademarked, so have many others.) “The phrase Newman gave the world was used to sell breakfast foods and party cups, but it only belongs to her in an intangible sense, on the rare occasions in which people choose to give her credit.”

At its core, this exploitive model is a feature, not a bug, of an economic system like ours. Subcultures, particularly those belonging to disenfranchised groups, have been dug up and monetized by the mainstream for decades, often right as those subcultures began gaining momentum on their own (see: punk music, ball culture, blaxploitation). And the internet has only accelerated that, allowing corporations and individual consumers alike to enjoy countless free lunches while leaving content creators — who, like Peaches Monroee, are often young creators of color — with the bill.

But if there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, that goes extra for the digital world, where free content is an essential building block of the internet as we know it. Simply by being online, we contribute to a system that takes advantage of people like Newman. (Even this company, Medium, was founded with the idea that people would post content for free, though that has been recently changing.*) Can an internet user ever hope to lighten their own contribution on such an exploitive system—a digital carbon footprint, if you will?

The best answer to that question is one that’s been around for some time, though for a while it may have been seen as radical: Get onboard with wealth redistribution.

In the previous entry in this series, I wrote that “paying up” — that is, giving your money to people who perform emotional and intellectual labor for free on the internet — is extra credit in one’s quest to be a better person online. But in truth, it would be better interpreted as a foundational idea in the way we now live our online lives, a permanent cultural patch on an exploitive system that likely won’t ever fix itself


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